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Joined-up thinking: how to boost sustainability in the aluminium industry

Demand for aluminium is expected to rise, as the metal is key to reducing emissions economy-wide. How can the resulting challenges to the industry’s own sustainability efforts be addressed?

Lightweight, durable, and infinitely recyclable, aluminium remains one of the most important and useful materials in existence, and plays a central role in achieving the sustainability ambitions of multiple sectors. This adaptability continues to fuel demand, particularly from automotive manufacturers and the construction sector.

Primary production currently contributes more than 1.1bn tonnes of CO2 emissions worldwide[1] every year, so the drive for a sustainable future presents complex challenges to the industry. Recycling will help, as far less energy is required than in primary production but, even if all available aluminium were recycled, new primary aluminium would still be required well beyond the middle of the century.

“Rising demand means that future aluminium supply will require increased recycling rates and more primary metal production”

Miles Prosser, Secretary General, IAI

As a result, according to the International Aluminium Institute’s Beyond 2 Degrees dataset, the aluminium sector will have to reduce its emissions by around 77 per cent. It is a big ask, and it will only happen through broad collaboration between governments, manufacturers, NGOs and customers.

“Rising demand means that the future aluminium supply will require both increased recycling rates and more primary metal production,” says Miles Prosser, Secretary General of the International Aluminium Institute (IAI). “The aluminium industry has a record of transparency that builds trust with stakeholders; and a willingness to collaborate along the value chain, between producers and through the International Aluminium Institute. By continuing to focus on all the areas of sustainability and engaging with key stakeholders, the IAI will help the aluminium industry shape a better tomorrow,” Prosser added.

Central to IAI’s work is providing a global forum for collaboration with other industry associations and sustainability oversight organisations. And this is already yielding results. A key stakeholder is the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI), an organisation dedicated to setting sustainability standards and certifying both the industry and customers. “We believe the IAI and ASI are leading examples of how a multi-stakeholder approach, upstream and down, can drive change,” says Dr Fiona Solomon, Chief Executive Officer of the ASI. “We engage regularly with initiatives and organisations in other sectors to collaborate and share insights. Ultimately, we all need transformative changes to happen across industries of all kinds if we want to live in a world that can support people, nature and a long-term future.”

And the industry is responding. The biggest producer of aluminium in the Middle East, Emirates Global Aluminium, is set to divest its captive natural gas-fired power assets and, instead, source energy from the grid, including an increasing proportion of solar energy. EGA is also working with General Electric Co. to explore hydrogen as a fuel, as well as carbon capture, utilisation and storage solutions.

In China, over 4mn tonnes of smelting capacity will be relocated from coal-fired electricity-dependent regions to hydropower-rich provinces such as Yunnan. The change in power source for smelting could result in over 50mn tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions savings. In Germany, Hydro invested in advanced scrap sorting and shredding technologies that use X-ray transmission and sensors to better separate certain alloys.

Aluminium producers of cansheet and beverage cans in Europe are working towards a fully circular economy within 10 years. A new roadmap is aiming for 100 per cent aluminium beverage can recycling by 2030 through improved waste collection systems; better-sorting infrastructure; recovering aluminium from bottom ash treatment; and better consumer engagement.

“Breakthrough technology development [...] is much riskier. This would be too much for one single entity to take on”

Vincent Christ, Chief Executive, Elysis

One collaboration, in particular, could prove a real game-changer. Set up in 2018, Elysis is a Canadian-based joint venture between two major corporations, Alcoa and Rio Tinto, to employ inert anode technology in the smelting process. Not only does the technique eliminate CO2, but oxygen is a by-product, too, making it a carbon-positive process.

Vincent Christ, Chief Executive of Elysis in Quebec, Canada, points to the significance of a collaboration between two companies that might otherwise be in competition. “I would call it a paradigm shift,” he says, “When you go for real breakthrough technology development, by the nature of the undertaking it’s more challenging and riskier. This would have been too much for one single entity to take on. It would also have taken too long and cost too much.”

Unsurprisingly, this breakthrough has already attracted major investors who see not only its financial attraction but also the value it offers their own business.
Apple Corp has invested $4.7bn in green bonds since 2016, with the aim of kickstarting new low-carbon manufacturing and recycling technologies, including Elysis, and last month announced it would use the start-up’s carbon-free aluminium in its new iPhone SE. “This is what can happen when there’s a push from the producers to solve this and pull from the customer side,” says Christ.

Aluminium’s multiple advantages make it extremely attractive to many users. The industry’s responsibility, therefore, must be to ensure it meets its own sustainability goals and those of the other sectors and customers dependent on it.

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